Just days after stepping down as chairman of Victoria’s Taxi Services Commission – the body established by the Victorian government to regulate the state’s taxi and hire car industry – Graeme Samuel has told reporters the government has “imposed a dead weight around the neck of the taxi industry” by continuing to levy high licence fees.
A taxi operator before he starts the year knows he has to pay out a licence fee of $18,000 to $20,000.
Speaking to radio station 3AW, Mr Samuel said that Victorian taxi drivers are being “regulated out of existence” while Uber “rubs its hands with glee”.
As chairman of the Taxi Services Commission (TSC) for more than three years until his replacement last week, Mr Samuel was responsible for implementing a swathe of reforms influenced by the controversial 2013 report on the industry by Allan Fels.
Reflecting on what has been a strategic guide for the government since its completion, Samuel said that the Fels report was “out of date” the day it was issued, with its limitations marked by an inability to predict the impact of ride-sharing services such as Uber – which launched in Australia a year before the Fels review was concluded.
A former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Samuel believes state governments have let down the traditional taxi industry, arguing that ineffective legislation hugely disadvantaged taxi drivers, compared to people who work for Uber.
“They [the Victorian government] put the taxi industry at a major disadvantage,” he said. “A taxi operator before he starts the year knows he has to pay out a licence fee of $18,000 to $20,000.
“The government fee is around $23,000, $24,000. So his business is already starting in deficit with that amount of money. The Uber driver doesn’t have that fee, so he’s already $20,000 better off.
“What we’ve got to do is put the taxi industry on a level playing field,” he said.
Mr Samuels added that “the best regulation of all, aside from issues of safety, is to empower the consumer to make a choice.”
Meanwhile, his comments have received a mixed response from local taxi industry analysts.
George Kapnias, managing director of one of Melbourne’s most respected chauffeur driven hire-car companies Southern Cross, has been one of the Victorian government’s – and the state Opposition’s – loudest and most articulate critics of their positions on resolving the problems of Melbourne’s taxi industry.
Speaking to Neos Kosmos, Mr Kapnias said: “Most of what Mr Samuel says is common sense and I agree with him that Uber has rubbed its hands with delight at the massive cost benefits delivered to it by government inaction.
Mr Kapnias added that “a level playing field is needed going forward – with licence fees removed, and driver accreditation left to the industry”.
The Southern Cross boss has advocated the Victorian government should buy out existing hire car licences and lease them back, and put a $1 levy on all fares in the state for both traditional taxis or ride-sharing services, in order to fund a compensation scheme for long-term taxi licence holders who have seen their value slashed in recent years.”
Long-time campaigner Sandy Spanos, spokesperson for Victorian Taxi and Hire Car Families and an ardent critic of the TSC during Samuel’s reign, said she was alarmed by his comments.
“If Graeme Samuel felt the Fels reforms were inappropriate, why did he try and implement them, and now Allan Fels works for Uber. It smacks of corruption at every level,” she said.
Following a deal between the Andrews government and Sex Party MP Fiona Patten, it is likely Uber will be legalised in Victoria within weeks, having operated in Melbourne for more than three years.
Mr Samuel was replaced as chairman of the TSC last week by Mr Yehudi Blacher, who has held a number of senior positions within the Victorian public sector, including secretary for the former departments of Planning and Community Development, and Victorian Communities.